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The Amazon Enters the Fray: Wonder Woman and Her Predecessors

The first time in history we hear of the Amazons is in Homer’s Iliad. Twice they are noted by male speakers as fearsome foes; they are “a match for men,” according to Priam, king of Troy (Homer, Iliad 3.189). Herodotus gives us more details about them: they were once a warrior race of women who intermarried with the Scythians in the region northeast of the Black Sea. These Amazons refused to take up the customs of the Scythian women, saying “We shoot arrows, throw javelins, and ride horses, but have no knowledge of women’s chores” (Herodotus, Histories 4.114). The first time an Amazon is depicted in battle in Epic poetry is in Virgil’s Aeneid, where the Latin warrior Camilla rides out to fight against the Trojans:

 

Yet where the slaughter is thickest, the Amazon prances, exposing

One of her flanks for the fight and equipped with a quiver: Camilla.

Sometimes her hand scatters volley on volley of light, pliant javelins,

Sometimes she grabs for a strong double axe, for her hand never tires.

Arms from Diana, her golden bow, ring out on her shoulders.

If she’s repelled and retreats, she draws out her bow, faces backwards,

Firing her flying shafts from behind her. Her favoured companions

Gather about her: the virgins Larina and Tulla, and also

Wielding an axe made of Bronze, Tarpeia…

They’re so like the Tracian

Amazons splashing their way across Thermono’s streams in their gaudy

Armor, off to the wars, like Hyppolyta’s troops.  –Aeneid  (11.648 – 656, 658 – 659)

 

Virgil treats us to a detailed focus on the weapons and battle poses of Camilla: she bares her flank, heaves javelins, swings an axe, and turns backward in her saddle to riddle her pursuers with arrows. Further, she is backed by loyal, armed companions, and all four wear armor like the Amazons before them. This focus on weapons and tactics is an expansion and dramatization of the brief quotation from Herodotus. When we meet Amazons in other places in ancient tales, like in the Hercules myths, it is their unique garments or weapons that is the focus: in one feat, for instance, Hercules must steal the war-belt of Hippolyta, queen of Amazons.

Not to be outdone by pagan poets, the early Christian poet Prudentius depicts women warriors in his Psychomachia from the 5th century AD. Prudentius puts an allegorical twist on these battles, naming the warriors on one side after virtues, and their opponents after the vices. Here, Pride, who rides a flashing horse, rides against the seemingly overpowered Humility, unaware that a hidden pit has been dug between them by Deceit:

 

The humble queen stood on the other side

And unaware, had not drawn near the pit

Nor set foot on Deceit’s malignant trap.

As Pride dashed up, she fell into the snare

And thus revealed the treacherous gulf below.

Thrown forward, on the horse’s neck, she falls

Beneath his broken legs, crushed by his weight,

But when Humility beholds her foe

Outdone and lying at the point of death,

She steps in calmly with her head scarce raised

And moderates her joy with a kindly glance.

At this, Hope proffers an avenging sword

And fires her with a love of rightful praise.

Grasping her adversary by the hair,

She draws her forth, with suppliant face upturned;

Then bending back her head, she severs it

And holds it up by gory dripping locks. –Psychomachia (ll. 267 – 283)

 

As, one by one, the virtues overcome the vices, all things that plague humankind are put to flight:

 

Then kindly Peace,

The foe now put to flight, dives War away;

Fear is dispelled and fighting gear unclasped.

The flowing robes fall to the warrior’s feet,

And peaceful modesty check their rapid steps.

The trumpets now are silent, swords are sheathed

The dust subsides upon the field, the day

Returns with bright and cloudless face, and light

From heaven shines resplendent to the view.  –Psychomachia (ll. 631 – 639)

 

Like Virgil, Prudentius focuses on the weapons, physical posture, and companions of the combatants. Head bowed, it is with the sword of Hope that Humility decapitates Pride, both a gory image and an ethical lesson in one. When Peace routs War, swords are sheathed, capes are unclasped and cast aside, and the sun dawns again upon the field.

Why have I given this brief history of women in battle in ancient poetry?—because of Wonder Woman.

While Patty Jenkins’s film was a critical and commercial success, a pivotal scene in the film, where Diana/Wonder Woman emerges from a WWI trench and storms across no-man’s-land to destroy a German machine gun nest, has received a fair amount of criticism.

A Guardian Newspaper reviewer complains that in the scene, “Diana has been reduced to a weaponized smurfette.” In the same newspaper, no less than James Cameron calls the character of Diana “an objectified icon”, and calls the whole film “a step backwards” for its depiction of women, due, in part, to Diana’s armor, first revealed in the scene, which leaves her shoulders and thighs exposed. Some even mused that the scene resembles not so much a real WWI battle, but instead a model walking down a catwalk. Those who make such comparisons are quick to point out that Gal Godot, who plays Diana, was a supermodel who won Miss Israel a few years back.

This is not to say that everyone hated the scene.

Many viewers and reviewers reported that it brought them to tears, and Conor Schwerdtfeger calls it “a genuinely iconic and rousing super hero sequence that will go down as an historic moment for the genre as a whole.” What seems to be at stake is whether the scene inappropriately highlights Diana’s physical beauty at the expense of her martial prowess or philosophical ideals. In a word, does the scene–and by extension the film–treat Diana as merely a beautiful object, and not a whole human person?

When we watch the scene in light of the depictions of women warriors in Virgil and Prudentius, I think this worry is dispelled. Like her literary predecessors, Jenkins films the no-man’s-land scene in a way that denies neither the feminine beauty of the warriors, nor their prowess, nor the philosophical ideals by and for which they fight.

Early on in Wonder Woman, we learn that Diana’s philosophical ideals, and indeed those of all Amazons, are love and peace. In fact, the gods, we are told, created the Amazons to inspire love and peace in humans—especially human males—who had been tempted by Ares to give themselves over to war. It is this pitting of love/peace against war that forms the major conflict, both physical and ideological, of the film.

The whole reason Diana is at the trenches of the Western Front to begin with is that she wishes to find and destroy not the German soldiers, but Ares, who has driven them to war. Early on in the film, she says, “Where the fighting is most intense… if you take me there, I am sure I will find Ares… Only an Amazon can defeat him.” She explains that “Once I find and destroy Ares, the German army will be freed from his influence, and they will be good men again, and the world will be better.”

When Diana initially walks into the trenches, she is wearing a heavy black cloak which covers her whole body up to the neck, and her hair is pinned up. She expresses her desire to destroy the machine gun nest of the opposing German trench, but her American partner Steve Trevor tells her that the no-man’s-land between the trenches is “not something you can cross, it’s impossible… this is not what we came here to do.” Diana turns from Steve, unpins her hair, and seems to be adjusting something beneath her cloak which we cannot see, but seems to shock on-looking soldiers. Diana turns to Steve and says to him, “No, but it’s what I’m going to do.”

We then see a series of images of Diana ascending the ladder from the trench into no-man’s-land: first we see her ornate, golden shield as her cape falls away from it. Next, we see her arm, covered in her magic silver and gold bracers, then her calves in gold and red greaves, then her golden lasso wound on her belt. Finally, her head, crowned with the tiara of Antiope, emerges over the rim of the trench, and the camera pans down to her eagle-shaped breastplate, and finally she is shown in her full, classic Wonder Woman array for the first time.

Her arms rise in a slight cruciform shape for a moment, before she begins to run at the increasingly heavy fire. She deflects rifle bullets from both bracers, slaps aside a mortar before it can explode, and hunkers behind her shield when the machine gun opens up on her. Backed by the rifle-fire of her male soldier friends, she leaps down into the trench, and with a plunge of her shield crushes not an enemy soldier, but the machine gun—an invention of Ares if there ever was one—that had been keeping the no-man’s-land uncrossable.

In focusing on the armor, postures, and weapons of Diana, and in showing that she is backed by armed companions, Jenkins follows both Virgil and Prudentius. Diana’s bared thighs and her shoulders are reminiscent of Virgil’s descriptions of Camilla’s “expos[ed] flank” and “Arms… on her shoulders”. The unpinning of Diana’s hair and cloak, and the focus on the positioning of her head–confidently forward, but not haughtily raised–are reminiscent of Humility’s posture in Prudentius. Finally, the ideological battle that Diana fights—going to “where the fighting is most intense”—in order to free the Germans from the influence of Ares, follows both the first line from Virgil’s description of Camilla (“where the slaughter is thickest the Amazon prances”), and the defeat of War by Peace in Prudentius. Indeed, when Diana does defeat Ares at the end of the film, the scene is deeply reminiscent of Prudentius. Men drop their guns, embrace one another, and the sun rises.

I am not at all prepared to say that Jenkins had Virgil or Prudenitus in mind when she made Wonder Woman. But wittingly or not, she has crafted scenes that carry on the tradition of depicting women as beautiful, armed, deadly warriors who fight, not for bloodsport, but to further their ideals, which, in Diana and Peace’s case, is the end of war itself.

Diana says that, freed from Ares, “they will be good men again.” Prudentius says “the pure spirit, / Formed by the breath of God, rebels inside / Its prison, and the body’s foulness spurns” (Psychomachia ll. 905 – 907). Of course, there is much more to be said about the depiction of women in film. I offer these thoughts as correctives to our tendency to view film with reference to only present controversy, instead of the ancient past, where there are wisdom and warriors aplenty to instruct us in our forgetful age.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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